Interview: David Snoxell, Coordinator – All-Party Chagos Islands Parliamentary Group —
…it’s also called diplomacy, which as a former diplomat, I believe is a better way forward than litigation’
‘Resettlement and ultimate Mauritian sovereignty can be accommodated without affecting Diego Garcia base security’
David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius (2000-04), is Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He has been an ardent advocate of the Chagossians’s right to return to Diego Garcia. He has worked, after becoming Coordinator of the APPG, to find common ground to reconcile Britain’s and Mauritius’ interests in the Chagos. In the interview that follows he makes a cogent case for settling the issue by diplomatic means rather than resorting to International Court of Justice, and as a seasoned diplomat he opines that this is possible.
Mauritius Times: How does the All-Party Chagos Islands Parliamentary Group (APPG) react to the stand taken by the UK as outlined in the written statement by Baroness Anelay on 16 November with respect to the Chagos?
David Snoxell: The Group was outraged by the government’s decision. Members had a forthright discussion with ministers from the FCO, Defence, and Development immediately following the announcement which triggered emergency debates in both Houses of Parliament the next day. Of the 20 members who spoke in the Commons debate, only one supported the government and he was the former minister for BIOT. The APPG issued a strong statement rejecting the government’s decision. They felt it had ignored the arguments put by the Group and experts over the years. They did not accept the government’s premise that feasibility, defence and security interests, and cost were sufficient grounds for not agreeing to a pilot resettlement, recommended by the KPMG feasibility study. The written statement lacked any reasoned argument as to why resettlement could not be implemented.
* SAJ might have been hoodwinked by Boris Johnson’s reassurance given to him in New York, last September, that “we will make it work”, into softening his position as regards the dispute over the Chagos, but the stand taken by the UK suggests that the UK did not really intend to change tack with respect to both the question of the resettlement of the Chagossians and the issue of sovereignty. What do you think?
With all his experience of dealing with the UK over Chagos, going back to the sixties, I doubt that PM Jugnauth could be hoodwinked. But he would have seen that to give the proposed talks on sovereignty a fair wind would either lead to success or strengthen the position of Mauritius when the issue went back to UNGA. If the two parties can reach agreement then this must be better than spending 2 to 3 years going via the UNGA to the ICJ.
I agree that the British Government will be reluctant to “change tack” after maintaining the same position for the last 34 years but international pressure will have an impact. Clearly the UK wants to stop the matter being debated in the UN and being referred to the ICJ which they would probably lose. So the UK will need to negotiate with Mauritius. It’s also called diplomacy, which as a former diplomat, I believe is a better way forward than litigation.
* It looks like the Joint British High Commission-US Embassy Press Statement, issued in June this year, wherein mention was made that “the UK and USA are absolutely clear about UK sovereignty of these islands, which have been British since 1814” had already set the tone for what was to follow as regards the question of sovereignty. But what about the UK’s “final decision” which denies the Chagossians both the right of return to and the right of resettlement in the Chagos?
In practice the UK currently has sovereignty over Chagos but the UK intends to restore sovereignty to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes. That statement is a recognition of Mauritian future sovereignty. We shouldn’t get hung up by this mantra which the UK trots out on every occasion but rather look behind the words. The real issue, which the UK accepts, is that the Outer Islands are not needed for defence, so could be restored to Mauritius at any time. Of course Diego Garcia is needed and it will require constructive negotiation on both sides to reach a solution.
The British Government’s decision rejecting resettlement is not regarded as “final” by the Chagossians, Parliament, or the public. The campaign to allow the Chagossians to return to their homeland will continue at both the national and international level. The litigation will be resumed and the APPG, which has already reached 51 members including 3 former FCO ministers, will continue to hold the Government to account for the damage that its decision does to Britain’s standing and reputation for upholding human rights.
* The view expressed locally following Baroness Anelay’s statement is that the UK’s stand amounts to a total disregard if not disdain for the Mauritian claim of return of its excised territory and the Chagossians’ right of return to resettle. What would you say would explain the UK’s unyielding stand regarding these two issues? Is it about cost or is mostly due to objections from the US military?
The hardest question of all is what motivates otherwise well-meaning officials and ministers to harden their hearts against the Chagossians when the British public, media and Parliament strongly support them. I don’t know the answer but it is not cost, feasibility, defence, security or American pressure. I have dealt with these issues for over 20 years and am no nearer to understanding the motivation. Perhaps officials no longer have the competence, energy and will to establish a resettlement and deal with the administrative problems that would be involved.
* But if, as some commentators have suggested, it’s the security concerns and requirements which would have weighed heavily in the latest UK’s position, would you say, based on your experience with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that it’s the Pentagon that has the capacity and the clout to throw its weight around when it comes to the formulation of policies in relation to defence requirements in this part of the world as elsewhere?
As the APPG has frequently pointed out the US has never said it is opposed to resettlement, although informal concern may have been expressed. If they had been opposed they would have made that clear over the last few years and President Obama would have said so when he discussed the issue in April with PM Cameron and the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, in London.
The KPMG feasibility study team, with US approval, visited the islands including Diego Garcia and concluded that resettlement was feasible especially on Diego Garcia. Any security concerns over the base are manageable. Indeed the US may find that when trained, neighbouring Chagossians could provide a convenient source of labour and provide continuity, instead of having to bring workers over from the Philippines on short-term contracts.
The US may in the past have influenced the FCO but it is no longer pressuring the UK. The only comment the US ever makes is to say that it is a matter for the UK. They usually go along with whatever the UK decides on resettlement and sovereignty.
* The view was expressed in some quarters here that should Mauritius come up with some proposals that would help to meet the defence requirements of the US without jeopardising the US presence on Diego Garcia, the imbroglio about the issue of sovereignty could be defused. What’s your take on that?
A fanciful, imaginative and unrealistic notion.
* The UK has been saying since the days of Margaret Thatcher that the UK will cede the Chagos to Mauritius “when it is no longer required for defence purposes”. But isn’t that a very long shot given that the world has become increasingly and perhaps even more complex and dangerous than in the days of the Cold War with “terrorism, international criminality, instability and piracy” (as mentioned in Baroness Anelay’s statement) having come into the picture?
Only Diego Garcia is needed for defence purposes and it will be required for the foreseeable future. So the question is would a resettlement on this island interfere with the base operations and would Mauritian rather than British sovereignty make it less secure.
Resettlement is no more than an issue of convenience for the base. Security can be managed as it is with US bases around the world that are close to local populations. Sovereignty is more sensitive because the US is used to sharing the base with the UK and it pays no rent.
It will be up to Mauritius to show that Mauritian sovereignty in no way diminishes the security of the base or puts its operations at risk. The litany of 21st century threats cited in Baroness Anelay’s statement are there to underpin the UK decision against resettlement. Resettlement and ultimate Mauritian sovereignty can be accommodated without affecting base security.
* It’s very likely that the Mauritian government will press ahead with its request for an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). But in view of the latest UK stand despite the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea Award, it does not look like the UK and US will be bothered even if the ICJ were to rule in favour of Mauritius. What do you think?
Personally I hope the talks will be successful and obviate the need to involve the ICJ. But if they are not, Mauritius will feel vindicated in going full steam ahead for an UNGA resolution referring the matter to the ICJ for an Advisory Opinion.
The UK would take seriously a result in favour of Mauritius because not to do so would undermine the international legal structures that the UK helped create for the resolution of disputes between states. I would expect that the right of abode and resettlement would also be debated in the General Assembly and considered by the ICJ.
* But before we reach that stage, the Mauritian government will likely have to deal with the not-so-veiled threat of “lasting damage to Mauritius’ bilateral relations with both the UK and the USA” (as mentioned in the Joint British High Commission-Embassy of the USA Press Statement) should it go ahead with the referral of the Chagos issue to the ICJ. It added that the UK and US expected reassurance from Jugnauth that “he will return to a constructive path from which Mauritius will gain the benefit of friendly bilateral relations”. What in your view would amount to a constructive path?
These threats were probably diplomatic bluster at the local level and should be ignored. I doubt that the BHC/US embassy statement of 23 June was cleared by Ministers since they were taken up with the Brexit referendum on that day.
Both sides should focus on how to make progress in the talks between now and July. Mauritius could constructively present the UK delegation with its ideas on how a gradual transition, with confidence building measures, can be established towards eventual Mauritian sovereignty. That will require a staged timetable. The 1966 UK/US agreement, which is to continue until 2036, provides the obvious date for a transfer of sovereignty though there is no reason why the outer islands should not be transferred to Mauritius long before then.
In the meantime there could be co-management of the islands and Mauritius could offer help and support for a Chagossian resettlement. A possible scenario is that the Chagossians, who are both British and Mauritian citizens, return under UK/Mauritius co-management. I can see no reason why a satisfactory agreement cannot be reached well before July.